Lord Byron's Matzos
An episode from the life of Isaac Nathan, publisher, duelist, controversialist, intriguer, librarian, teacher, colonial, composer, anthropologist, opera-producer, alleged scion of royalty and martyr to public transport.
I cannot deny myself the pleasure of sending your Lordship some holy biscuits, commonly called unleavened bread, and denominated by the Nazarites Motsas, better known in this enlightened age by the epithet Passover cakes; and as a certain angel by his presence, ensured the safety of a whole nation, may the same guardian spirit pass with your Lordship to that land where the fates may have decreed you to sojourn for a while.
This was perhaps the last letter received by Lord Byron before his hasty exodus, in flight from scandal, from England in 1816. In fact, despite the hopes of the writer, Isaac Nathan, Byron was never to return. But before he left he sent the following reply, headed 'Piccadilly, Tuesday evening':
My dear Nathan,
I have to acknowledge the receipt of your very seasonable bequest, which I duly appreciate; the unleavened bread shall certainly accompany me in my pilgrimage; and with a full reliance on their efficacy, the Motsas shall be to me a charm against the destroying Angel wherever I may sojourn; his serene highness will, I hope, be polite enough to keep at a desirable distance from my person, without the necessity of my smearing my door posts or upper lintels with the blood of any animal. With many thanks for your kind attention, believe me, my dear Nathan,
Yours very truly,
Byron's reply strikes very clearly the note of his relationship with Nathan, that of a not-entirely supercilious king with an earnest, sometimes amusing, sometimes tedious, rather buffoonish courtier. He could be harsh enough in correspondence with others - e.g. to his fellow-poet Thomas Moore the previous year: 'Sun-burn (i.e. damn) Nathan! Why do you always twit me with his vile Ebrew nasalities?' The reason Moore had been peevish with Nathan was that the latter had filched the concept of Moore's own 'Irish Melodies' to create a runaway publishing success - his commissioning and setting to music of Byron's 'Hebrew Melodies'.
This venture was a classic piece of chutzpah on Nathan's part, typical of the sanguinity which carried him through his extremely eventful career. Isaac Nathan was born in 1792 to the cantor of the synagogue at Canterbury, England. He was later to claim that his father was an illegitimate son of the Polish King Stanislas Poniatowski, but there is no reason to suppose that this unlikely attribution is anything more than one of his many flights of imagination. Brought up to be a cantor himself, Isaac early decided that his career should in fact be in secular music and was apprenticed to a London publisher, through whom his first compositions (dance music) were published in 1808. He later obtained the appointments of singing master to Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent, and of music librarian to the Regent; he also met with, and perhaps gave lessons to, Lady Caroline Lamb (who later became the godmother of one of his daughters). This gave him the springboard for a speculative letter to Byron, whom he had never met, in June 1814, a letter which, as Nathan's descendant Catherine Mackerras noted in her biography of her ancestor, 'The Hebrew Melodist', is 'remarkable for its servile and flattering tone, typical of that age of servile sycophancy'. The meat of the letter is as follows:
I have with great trouble selected a considerable number of very beautiful Hebrew melodies of undoubted antiquity, some of which are proved to have been sung by the Jews before the destruction of the Temple....I am most anxious that the Poetry for them should be written by the First Poet of the present age..
Nathan slightly queers his own pitch by admitting in the letter that he had already applied to Sir Walter Scott, who had refused, but nonetheless, for what exact reason we do not know, Byron went along with Nathan's proposal and proceeded to pen twenty-odd lyrics which subsequently became amongst his most famous. Not only that, he agreed to assign the copyright of these poems to Nathan by a legal deed. The poet is unlikely to have been aware that Nathan had already availed himself of the use of some of his poetry in some songs published in 1812, but in the days before copyright law such abuses were not uncommon.
To assist the sales of the 'Hebrew Melodies' Nathan enlisted the name of the popular tenor singer, John Braham. Braham (born John Abraham) had begun his career in the synagogue choir in London under the guidance of its cantor, Meyer Lyon, who doubled (by permission of the synagogue and never on Friday nights) as the Covent Garden tenor, Michaele Leone. Lyon introduced Braham to the London stage, in what proved to be the outset of a spectacular career that gained Braham European fame. (In the meantime, Lyon had gone bankrupt promoting opera, and fled to Jamaica where he died as the cantor of the island's synagogue - but that's another story). Although Braham is credited in the printed 'Hebrew Melodies' as being part composer, he in fact had no hand in the settings, although he often sang them, which help to promote them. 'Hebrew Melodies' remained sufficiently popular to still be in print in the 1850s. An additional reward for Nathan was that he became part of the poet's social circle, and, despite the backbiting of others of the poet's friends, was able to bask in Byron's reflected glory - which, indeed, he continued to do in his frequently published self-vindications throughout his life. At their tearful parting, shortly before Nathan sent him the matzos, the poet pressed a £50 note on the young musician as a farewell gift, which would have been as welcome to the recipient as it was ill-affordable by the donor.
Alas, this early success of 'Hebrew Melodies', and his partnership with the noble poet, proved to be the high point of Nathan's career. The departure of Byron robbed him of a famous patron, and the death of Princess Charlotte in 1817 of his illustrious pupil. Other ventures, into publishing with his brother Barnett (later to gain some notoriety as 'the 'Baron of Rosherville', proprietor of a pleasure garden in Rochester where he performed a famous blind-fold 'egg-dance'), giving singing-lessons (he taught the young Robert Browning, but suffered rumours of intrigue with one of his lady pupils), or carrying out (according to his account) undercover missions on behalf the Government and Royal Family, all tended to end in tears, or lawsuits - most importantly, without bringing in much needed cash. Contingent events - a duel with a slanderer of Lady Caroline, a trial following a pugilistic assault on an Irish Lord who had married a favourite pupil (Nathan was fortunately acquitted), an open letter to Lord Melbourne denouncing the Government for not paying Nathan's expenses - did not strengthen his position. At last, in 1841, he decided to emigrate to Australia.
Here his status revived strongly, (apart from the odd bankruptcy from time to time). He was the first notable musician to settle in Australia and eventually wrote the first Australian opera ('Don John of Austria') and gave the first productions of Mozart operas in the southern hemisphere. Despite his apparently lapsed Judaism (his children were all baptised) he presided over the opening of the first synagogue in Sydney. He was the first to take an interest in aboriginal music, and made attempts to transcribe it (though it came out strangely like Victorian drawing-room products). According to some, he (or one of his children) composed the tune for the Ozzie anthem, 'Waltzing Matilda'. His youngest son, born in Australia, he named 'Walter Byron' after the two adored poets of his younger days. Nathan's notable Australian descendants include the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras.
On June 15th 1864, descending from Sydney's new (and only) horse-drawn tram, Isaac Nathan tripped and was crushed to death beneath its wheels; a sad but fittingly unusual death ending an adventurous career.
With great thanks to Rosalyn F. Manesse, who told me about the matzos, and apologies for not believing her at first.
The Hebrew Melodist: A Life of Isaac Nathan by Catherine Mackerras (Sydney, 1963).
Isaac Nathan: Friend of Byron by Olga Somech Phillips (London, 1940)
Letters of Lord Byron, ed. R. G. Howarth (London, 1962)
Revd. Solomon Lyon of Cambridge 1755-1820, by Naomi Cream, in Jewish Historical Studies vol. 36, (London, 2001)